By Andrew Neitlich

The case of the disappearing client

By Andrew Neitlich

A client of mine was hot and heavy to move forward with an engagement last month. He paid me 50% upfront right away (BTW — I am more than willing to give up credit card fees to send an electronic link to clients for upfront payment; many times, clients will even pay 2% more than the engagement price to cover these fees and get me started right away.), and I have been delivering ever since.

Then, suddenly, he disappeared. I sent stuff, and heard nothing back. He didn’t return my calls. I delivered a set of brochures he needed for an urgent meeting, for which he had to review proofs at the printer, and I heard nothing.

Friday I called again and the receptionist said he was at a meeting. He didn’t return my calls.

So today I sent an email with more deliverables saying I couldn’t do more unless he was more responsive, that I enjoyed working with him, but the relationship had to be a two-way street.

In my mind, I was thinking, “He hates my work and is going to fire me. Or his company has changed course. Or he found someone less expensive. Or something really bad happened when my designer sent the printer the brochure proofs. Or his company is bankrupt…..”

Today the client emailed me saying he had been sick, was back in the office, and just getting caught up.

So, here is the lesson:

When a client disappears, don’t say or do anything drastic until you have the facts. Keep delivering. Assume the best. Be professional in your correspondence. And don’t let your brain and its crazy negative thoughts make you do something stupid.

  • nico7799

    Great advice and very, very true.

  • Good thing you didn’t go off on the guy. that would have been real bad.

  • Oh boy is this ever true, I’ve sent “payment overdue” notices before just to have the check drop through the letter box the very next day. Sound advice.

  • Great advice! I’ve done this too – and eaten my words when I realized it was a family emergency that had kept them out of the office. Always be professional and polite. There’s nothign wrong with calling or emailing asking where someone is, or reminding them of a deadline you’re both trying to meet. But don’t jump to conclusions until you’ve given them ample time to respond. I’d say wait at least 2-4 weeks before sending one of those warning emails or letters. I sometimes wait even longer. I have myself covered in my contract, and they know about the clauses up front (I explain them in detail) so if they’re absent it’s usually for good reason. And if not, there are monetary penalties, so they can pay up. Either way, I stopped complaining about it a long time ago. I just move on to another client until I hear back from them and I address it then.

  • SJH

    I’ve had a client that hasn’t responded to my emails for about 3 months now. I wonder what’s happened to him… it’s ok though, I’ve got a 50% upfront payment and I’m not doing any more work for him until he gets back to me. The 50% fortunately covers all the work I’ve done up to this point :)

  • Anonymous

    you didn’t have to do anything drastic because you had 50% up front. I’m guessing a lot of folks on here don’t have that policy (but should)

    Also, if the client is late, there’s nothing wrong with sending out a late notice. If my credit card bill is late, they have no problem assessing a fee, same with my mortgage. If they’re a good/regular client you can maybe see what the deal is, but with a new client, you can’t be soft.

  • Current example: We have a client who we have not heard from in 4 months. They owe a nice chunk of change and we did everything we could to contact them: phone, email, letters, etc but never heard from them. After 90 days, our attorney sent a letter threatening legal action and gave them a 14 day period to contact the lawyer and settle the account.

    After 14 days we prepared and filed a law suite. A day after the law suit was filed, we recieved a letter from the client that was dated 7 days after the 14 day grace period was up. He must have recieved the letter (as it was not returned) and had a feeling he was about to get sued and went through this story about things had fallen out at his company. He stated that he knew he owed us money and was planning on paying us at the end of January.

    We have gone forward with the law suite and are waiting on confirmation that he has been served. This is just the other side of what can happen when you do not here back from a client. We did however, recieve 50% up front. He just decided to dissapear once the project was complete.

  • It is amazing what your mind thinks of when you don’t hear from someone for a while.

    I had a client who I ran into a year ago. They needed a web site and I presented the company with a slick presentation and professional proposal.

    I didn’t hear from them for 1 week, so I wrote a couple e-mails, telephoned them, and waited to hear back. 1 month, two…kept writing.

    What happened was that the company was bought by another bigger company. They said “if they need me, they will be in touch and have me start working on a RIA for them.”

    Like I said…It’s amazing what goes through your mind…Was the proposal NOT professional enough? Was it TOO professional? Did they like my presentation?

    It’s scary, but I agree with you, Andrew. Don’t let you mind play tricks on you.

    Thanks for the great article.

  • i was in need of that advice one month ago when i was working in a project for a company but i didn’t take any up front money.
    after two monthes of work i told them that i want a percentage of the money that’s covers the finished work and they said that they will send the money , but after more than a month the money didn’t arrive so i stopped the work and talked to them again but the manager wasn’t there as he was prebaring for his marriage so another one talked to me and said that he will tell the manager about that money to give an order to send it.
    after days i went to the bank to get the money but they told me that there is no money sent to me .
    i gone crazy and phoned them and i was in very bad mood and was thinking about that i was tricked , but they said that they sent the money and i went again to the bank and found the money there and got that the fault came from the clerk in the bank.
    – so now i learned not to think in that crazy things again (just in business) :)
    thank you andrew

  • I think this applies to many things in life. Be patient and slow to judge the people around you, but quick to praise.

  • Here here. But still, the receptionist should have given some sort of information.

  • When a client disappears, don’t say or do anything drastic until you have the facts. Keep delivering. Assume the best. Be professional in your correspondence. And don’t let your brain and its crazy negative thoughts make you do something stupid.

    well, thats some sound advice. :) but sometimes the wait may last forever. at my last job, I was handling a website for a client with whom the only communication methods we had were phone/fax or email since he was from another country. now that client paid 50% advance before starting the project, okayed the design & specs etc. & we were going on full steam. As per our work-policies, we sent links to him to show off some new sections & stuff & the working features, but got no reply. no phone calls were returned, no emails, so after a week of futile attempts to contact him, we put the project on hold. now its been more than 17 months, I’m no longer with my last company, but I still know for a fact that that client hasn’t called back yet. so it has been assumed that either he’s no longer interested in the project or his company has gone bankrupt. that website’s still lying there on my ex-company’s intranet server, unfinished & orphaned!!

  • nemanja_nq

    Oh, this is SO TRUE! At start I was thingking something like:
    She/he don`t loves me. LOL :)

  • pontiacman

    Wow, Iv had a client disappear twice. The second time being now.. Sadly, we must use law to settle this issue now.

  • It seems that my worst non-paying clients are based in Australia.

    Two so far — one disappeared after paying half up front and the work was completed. Yep, he promised and promised and promised to pay but two years later — nada.

    The second I flew to Australia to meet and work with (from Russia) — he promised to pay for the airfare and expenses but the day I was leaving he came up with the “I’ll send it to you when you get back” story and never paid.

    If I were working for any other company in Australia — I’d get 100% up front or never work one dollar beyond what was paid in advance.

    US customers are generally no problem — their legal system has plenty of shark laywers to keep clients moving unless they are bankrupt.

  • Jaza

    One client of mine has been making me feel very frustrated lately. He got me to do a lot of work for him a few months ago, and assured me that he was eager to get the whole project finished ASAP. Then, I didn’t hear a word from him for about 6 weeks.

    When I finally did get hold of him a few weeks ago, he told me that he’d lost his phone and all his contacts, and that he’d had some big family events (including a wedding) that had kept him tied up. Once again, he assured me that he wanted to get the project finished. But as with the last time he told me this, he didn’t give me a list of what still needed doing, and once again I’ve hardly heard from him in weeks.

    I’m particularly worried, because I only charged 10% upfront, and at this rate, I don’t know if I’ll ever see the full amount that I’m owed. Maybe I should change my policy, and start charging 50% upfront, like most people seem to be doing.

  • Jaza,

    Two things:

    1). The due date should have been defined in the contract (You DID have a contract, right?:-) with the client.

    2). 10% may be a little weak to know if a potential client is serious enough. I usually set up the following payment system:

    – 30% up front (this tells me the client is DEFINITELY serious)
    – 30% in the middle of the project (to make sure we are going down the right path)
    – 30% at the end of the project (Project Completed according to the contract/spec)

    Everything should have been defined in your proposal to the client. When you don’t have anything in writing, the sky is the limit.

    Hope this helps.
    Jonathan Danylko

  • David J.


    When do you collect the remaining 10%? :) (30% + 30% + 30% = 90%)

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